Madison Cocktail Week was delighted to have the chance to briefly pick Great Northern Distilling's Brian Cummins' brain. You can chat with him in person tonight at Julep and The Old Fashioned. We think you'll definitely want to after reading this.
What's the most essential component of a classic Wisconsin fish fry?
The batter has to be a tried and true flavorful recipe- no panko-crusted fish will pass for a wisconsin fish fry. Well-used oil and a fry-o-lator that dates from the 1950's helps too.
Perch or Cod? Why?
Perch by a mile. You can get fried cod just about anywhere in the county, but perch seems to be exclusive to the upper midwest. Plus, it is a much more sustainably harvested and local fish than cod that comes from a long distance with questionable sourcing.
Go-to cocktail to accompany at a fish fry?
Whiskey old fashioned sour with mushrooms.
Can you describe how you’ve gone about deciding Great Northern’s balance/mix of products, how you decide to experiment with potential new products? How does the perception of Wisconsin as a “beer and brandy” state inform that?
The products we have developed started with a combination of what raw ingredients were available locally and what spirits I personally was passionate about. Since 2013, we have expanded to five spirits (Potato Vodka, Herbalist Gin, Opportunity Rum, Vanguard Whiskey, Rye Whiskey) sold statewide.
The first of our core products was our potato vodka, largely because Plover is right in the middle of potato fields. Also, potato vodka seems to be an underserved part of a very crowded category and a flavorful vodka is even less common.
Our other spirits all have some unique reason for being - I don't want any to just be a "me-too" product. The best example of this is our Vanguard Whiskey which is technically a bourbon, but with a very low corn component compared to a traditional Kentucky spirits. With a high proportion of wheat barley and rye, our flavor profile skews toward a Canadian whiskey. My idea is to define what a Wisconsin Whiskey flavor profile should be - a spirit with the richness of bourbon, but the smoothness of Canadian whiskey.
We definitely experiment with new products and have done limited releases of spirits around Black Friday in November and our anniversary party in May. Sometimes they go to market through distribution like our Doppelganger Whiskey made from O'so Brewing's Dominator Doppelbock beer and sometimes they are sold at our distillery only like our Barreled Gin this past May. Our next release is a coffee spirit that we are making in partnership with Ruby Coffee Roasters a couple of miles away from us in Nelsonville, WI.
I think the perception of Wisconsin as a "beer and brandy" state is not giving enough credit to a unique drinking culture that has developed here over generations. Whether it is rye whiskey in the Fox Valley, jezynowka here in central Wisconsin, or cherry bounce in Door County there is a lot more going on than most people realize. One clear preference among most consumers here is smoothness/easy drinking spirits are associated with high quality. This is very different from the southern palate that prefers their whiskey to have some fire and burn. Smoothness is a family resemblance that carries through all of our spirits and is a result of the way we ferment, our style of equipment, and where we make our cuts.
What made you decide to make that leap of faith from your previous profession to plunge into the world of craft spirits?
It all started back in Feb 2012 when i was having cocktails at the Marvel Bar in Minneapolis with a group of my friends. One had just read an article in Popular Mechanics magazine about craft distilling and thought it would be something cool to try. I was a frustrated chemical engineer in the paper industry and wasn't looking forward to another 25 years of mergers, downsizings, mill closures, and bankruptcies, so this was my lightbulb moment. He and I spent about a year studying the industry and writing a business plan that lead to Great Northern starting in November 2013.
For years, I looked for a second profession that could combine my engineering training, sales & marketing skills I'd developed , and a good culinary palate. Craft distilling hits all of those items and it seems like the right time to be entering the field. It feels like where craft brewing was 10-15 years ago.
What’s the single most important lesson working in the paper industry taught you that you’ve applied to running a distillery? (Aside from your handsome business cards, obviously.) What’s an unexpected principle that you’ve found yourself applying in both contexts?
The most important lesson probably was a commitment to safety in an industrial setting. Even though we are small and only have a few people working in production day to day, many safety hazards are comparable to working in a paper mill. I think there are a lot of people that get into the craft distilling business with a romanticized view of being a "maker". The hazards of steam, forklifts, and tanks can take your life if you don't treat them with respect.
Something unexpected I've used in both are principals of quality control and lean six sigma. I never thought I'd go back to some of those techniques.
You guys have a commitment to sourcing ingredients within a pretty tight mileage radius. Is there any tension between that philosophy and American Craft Gin’s explosion in popularity abroad, especially in the UK and continental Europe–which seem to be obviously compelling markets?
At this point, not at all! While we are actively pursuing an export program, our production volumes are manageable and we can maintain our 150 mile sourcing radius. I feel we create a gin and a flavor that is rooted here in Wisconsin, but it can go around the world so everyone can experience a taste of our home.
For the base spirit of our gin, we use red winter wheat and wheat malt, all of which are readily available in that radius. Our botanicals have always been a challenge to source within 150 miles because while all of them can grow in Wisconsin, not all have a commercial source here. Juniper is the toughest for us and comes mainly from Oregon. About half of our Coriander comes from a couple of local CSA's and home gardeners that let their cilantro go to seed at the end of the season. Rose hips come from Iowa and lavender comes from Door County. The only ingredient that will be a challenge as we grow is our new growth spruce tips. They are only available for a couple of weeks in the springtime and are hand foraged for our gin.
Is it fair to say your mustache is something of a signature? How did you decide you were a mustache man? Any grooming tips, product recommendations?
The big handlebar mustache and beard have become a bit of a trademark look for me since starting Great Northern. I've wanted to grow a luxuriant mustachio for a long time, but always had to keep my facial hair trimmed at the mills since I needed to pass respirator fit tests. I like to think it predates the current hipster beard trend, but I'm sure the trend in Brooklyn started before I left the mills in 2012.
I use Dandy Candy mustache wax from Petal Pusher Fancies and it seems to keep thing mostly in order.
What’s the closest you’ve been to the North Pole?
When the central Wisconsin paper mills I worked for were purchased by a Finnish/Swedish company, I had a chance to visit the Veitsiluoto paper mill in Kemi, Finland. It is the northernmost mill in the world and only about 50 miles from the arctic circle. Still 1,600 miles from the north pole, but I stayed in an ice hotel.